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China sets new record for annual launch activity

Posted: November 1, 2010

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Sunday's launch of a navigation satellite was the 12th flight of a Long March rocket in 2010, eclipsing the record for most Chinese space missions in a single year.

File photo of a Long March 3C rocket at the Xichang launch base. Credit: China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology
This weekend's flight broke an annual record China set in 2008, when it conducted 11 launches of human, scientific and military payloads.

This year, the country's burgeoning space program has launched 12 rockets, all successfully.

Payloads include four Beidou navigation satellites launched in January, July, August and October. China plans to continue a rapid pace of Beidou flights over the next two years, eventually reaching an intermediate stage of deployment by 2012, when it will provide positioning services over China and neighboring regions.

China will have launched 14 Beidou satellites by 2012 to achieve the localized coverage in the Asia-Pacific region, according to official government sources.

Three Long March flights have orbited Yaogan military reconnaissance satellites, beginning in March when a trio of spacecraft blasted off on a Long March 3C rocket.

Two more Yaogan payloads, believed to be electro-optical or night-vision radar spy satellites, were sent into space in August and September.

State-owned Chinese media outlets report the Yaogan satellites accomplish scientific experiments, survey land resources, estimate crop yields and contribute to natural disaster response efforts. But observers believe the spacecraft are actually operated by the Chinese military.

Long March rockets in June and October sent Shijian technology demonstration payloads into orbit.

The June launch of Shijian 12 started a groundbreaking rendezvous test that reached a crescendo in August, when it approached another Chinese satellite. China released no official account of the demo, but independent analysts using U.S. military tracking data concluded the spacecraft must have passed within about 600 feet of each other.

Other boosters launched a Tianhui mapping satellite, the Chinasat 6A television broadcasting spacecraft and the Chang'e 2 probe to the moon.

Chang'e 2 launched Oct. 1 and reached the moon five days later.

At least three more satellites are planned to launch this year, potentially extending the record to around 15 missions by the end of December.

China is preparing another Long March rocket to haul a Fengyun weather satellite to orbit as soon as Nov. 4. Another communications satellite and Beidou navigation platform could follow later in November and December.

The pace of Beidou launches, coupled with increased activity in China's human space program, should continue a frenzied launch manifest through 2011.

China is testing the core module of a mini-space station named Tiangong 1 for launch late next year. Future Chinese astronaut crews will visit the complex starting in 2012, according to state media.

This year's record launch rate comes as NASA and China open a joint dialogue on potential space cooperation. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden visited China last month, and his hosts afforded him unprecedented access to human spaceflight facilities.

Although the talks did not include discussions on specific partnerships, according to NASA, the visit provided a basis for further dialogue.